There is a lot of buzz in the gaming industry over virtual reality with many major companies gearing up to release their own virtual reality headsets. Facebook recently took a huge step into the market with its acquisition of Oculus VR Inc., creators of the highly anticipated Oculus Rift virtual reality head-mounted display.
With so much investment by the major companies, virtual reality will likely be the next big thing in gaming. Others have already investigated the virtual reality patent landscape. However, virtual reality technology covers many different things. Head-mounted displays have been getting a lot of attention because they are the critical first step in immersing the player into the virtual reality world, but there are certainly other devices for improving player immersion. Another critical component in enhancing a player’s gaming experience is intuitive controllers paired with the head-mounted displays.
Below are some examples of virtual reality controller technology used with the head-mounted displays:
This article builds on the existing virtual reality patent investigations by analyzing the patent filings and top owners of virtual reality controller technology. This analysis relies exclusively on publically available data provided by the United States Patent and Trademark Office and does not cover patent filings that have not been made public.
The analysis begins with a search for all patents in the following gaming classifications between 1976 and 2012 that are related to video game controllers
…with “virtual reality” or “haptic” anywhere in the patent specification, title, abstract, or claims.
The search results are shown in the chart below:
Filing of virtual reality controller patents began around the same time as that of virtual reality patents, in 1992. Since 1992, the filings generally increase until 2008 when they flat-line and gradually decline. All patent filings declined in 2008, not just virtual reality controller patents, and the economic recession is most likely the reason for this decline. However, if the commercialization of virtual reality head-mounted displays is successful, we expect to see a big increase in patent filings for virtual reality controller devices.
The top holders of virtual reality controller patents are:
It is not surprising that Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft are the major patent holders. However, the largest patent holder in the space is not of the major console developers, but Immersion Corporation. Immersion is a developer of haptic touch sensitive technology based in San Jose California. Immersion has over 700 issued patents or pending applications. Those in the industry may recognize Immersion as the plaintiff in the vibrating video game controller litigation. In 2002, Immersion brought suit against Microsoft and Sony alleging that their vibrating game console controllers infringed its patents. Both cases ultimately settled, and as a result Sony and Microsoft appear to have obtained rights to Immersions patents.
To round out the investigation, I also did a quick patent assignee search of companies that were developing virtual reality controller products, but did not show up as a top patent holder in the search above:
Unlike the major console companies, these newer and smaller companies have little to no patent assets. Despite virtual reality gaming only being in its infancy, there is already a good number of players and patents in the space. Peripheral Developers in this space should keep an eye out for Immersion because of its library of patents in haptic touch sensitive technology, numerous patents in virtual reality gaming controllers, and its litigation history. The existence of such a large library of patents presents challenges and risks to smaller peripheral developers wishing to enter the space. While unlikely, these patent holders may use their patents to exclude smaller peripheral developers from entering the space. Alternatively and more likely, if virtual reality gaming controllers become commercially successful, it may awaken these patent holders to seek to commercialize their patents as Immersion did in 2002. It will be interesting to see how things play out between the large patent holders and smaller peripheral developers if virtual reality gaming devices are a commercial success.
Game developers, and especially mobile game developers, should also be aware of the potential threats posted by Immersion and other patent holders in this pace. A quick glance at Immersion’s website shows that is not just in the peripheral controller space, but also has products and likely patents that cover software and particularly tablet and smart-phone related software.
 Greenbaum’s analysis observes that filing of virtual reality patents began in 1992. http://greenbaumpatent.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/a-virtual-reality-patent-landscape-analysis
 See http://immr.client.shareholder.com/ReleaseDetail.cfm?ReleaseID=111788; see also http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=4325; see also http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aD4EnYnmB6uk&refer=japan
 For Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, I had to narrow the assignee search with “haptic” anywhere in the patent to get results related haptic controllers. There are more results in the second assignee search than the first because the second search was not limited to classification.
 3 applications contain the term “virtual reality” or “haptic.”